The curtains just recently dropped on this summer’s version of that 2800-year-old, international gala titled “The Olympics”; and for the observant, it’s proven once again to be much more than merely a celebrated sporting event. Rio’s festivities, in fact, served as revealing microcosm of human history — of humanity itself, actually.
I’m not talking only about thrill-of-victory-agony-of-defeat stuff and the like. Between boxers accused of rape and other competitors exhibiting humility even while snagging gold, silver or bronze, this year’s spectacle was stippled with instances of the worst and best of the human spirit. In the ignominious hi-jinx of the USA’s medal-heavy Ryan Lochte and his swim-team colleagues or Russian athletes’ doping violations, we’re reminded: man is a fallen critter, capable, with metronomic regularity, of disgracing himself, fouling up even glorious opportunities. Yet that wasn’t the totality of what was showcased: spectators were also treated to confirmations of the species’ capacity for dignity and inspiration.
Consider American Olympian pole-vaulter Sam Kendrick: during a practice run, when the National Anthem began sounding over the loudspeakers, he halted, laid down his pole and stood at attention for the balance of the song. Kendrick, an Army Reservist Second Lieutenant, ultimately went on to win a bronze medal, offering this commentary:
They say … if you win a medal it will change your life. I think your life is changed on the way to that medal … all the journeys … sacrifices … training that you do, and the people you leave at home to watch. That is what is really the value of the [medal] … [I]t’s very fun to come and compete, but not necessarily the end of all things.
That’s what you’d call a startlingly healthy perspective.
Perhaps just as impressive was the reaction of powerhouse sprinter Usain Bolt (Jamaica) who paused a post-race interview with a Mexican reporter to show similar respect to the U.S. Anthem which had just begun playing. Got that? Jamaican runner? American anthem? Mexican reporter? Classy guy.
Then there’s the bracing drama of 5000-meter racers Abbey D’Agostino’s (United States) and Nikki Hamblin’s (New Zealand) colliding during an early qualifying heat. D’Agostino stopped to make sure her Kiwi rival got up and continued the race. Seconds later, when the Yank went down once more, it was Hamblin’s turn to lend a hand, assisting D’Agostino across the finish.
Although in one sense the elite duo’s Olympic aspirations were dashed — neither ended up medaling — some have dubbed them the “Real Winners of Rio”.
The International Olympic Committee, recognizing their mutual, “exemplary sportsmanship“, granted both women the Pierre de Coubertin Medal, conferred on just seventeen other recipients previously for the most uncommon exhibitions of sportsmanship; “one of the noblest honours that can be bestowed upon an Olympic athlete.” (Olympic Museum)
D’Agostino has reflected: “[T]he only way I … have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way … This whole time here, He’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance — and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”
Hamblin’s thoughts: “I am so grateful to Abbey for picking me up, and I think many people would have returned the favor. I’m never going to forget that arm on my shoulder.”
How about middle-distance hopeful Sarah Brown who, in Autumn 2015, at the peak of her pre-Olympics training, discovered she was pregnant. Abort her child? Never a consideration. “As terrifying as it was to become a mom, I knew that that was what I wanted,” she insists. Persevering through her work-outs (she missed only one week for the actual birth!) she brought forth little Abigail Anne four months before July’s trials. There, regrettably, the breastfeeding mom fell short. Nonetheless, her contemplations, posted on Instagram with a photo of mother and daughter on the immediate heels of that disappointment, were anything but defeatist: “Today wasn’t the fairytale ending you dream about. But then again, this journey never really was about an ending, it’s a beginning. A new chapter as a family of three.”
All of the above can be fully accounted for by fundamental human nature; something with which the Bible’s writers — and America’s Founders — were thoroughgoingly familiar.
On the one hand: “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10); “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23); “There is no man who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46). The Scriptural record goes on and on, affirming humankind’s “fallenness” and fallibility.
On the other hand, it further underscores something else, quite distinct from ingrained wickedness: the human race stamped with God-likeness, a reflection of His character; fashioned in the Creator’s “image”. (Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 9:6). Men and women were invested with mind-boggling potential (Psalm 8:5). Remnants of that status remain (James 3:9) — although revealed as through a distorting mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12). “Bent people,” in C.S. Lewis’ vivid phrasing.
The 18th-century giants who steered the American Republic in her infancy grasped this tension: the human essence is immensely valuable and dignified, sacred even — but warped and damaged by the presence of moral corruption. This insight shaped their conclusions regarding the manner of government necessary to curate a civilized and enduring society.
Three of many possible examples:
— Alexander Hamilton diagnosed “the folly and wickedness of mankind”; that “men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious”; and conceded, “I never expect to see a perfect work from an imperfect man.”
— John Jay acknowledged individuals’ vulnerability to “the dictates of personal interest”; their penchant for “swerv[ing] from good faith and justice”.
— James Madison: “[T]here is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust … [T]here are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities … If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
The popular theological label for Madison’s referenced “depravity” is “original sin” — “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” in G.K. Chesterton’s telling. Columnist William Murchison crowns it “the rock-bottom Christian doctrine that explains everything worth explaining.” Pascal put it this way: “[W]ithout this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves.”
Still, hints of the Imago Dei persist: on a human level, at least, folks maintain some facility for accomplishing elevating deeds. (Matthew 7:9-11)
Solzhenitsyn summarized, pungently: “[T]he line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Mankind’s dilemma.
Which is why, over the course of a couple weeks of sports competition — as in virtually any human undertaking — there will be found feats of luminous character, delighting and inspiring. Alongside them? Other acts, perfidious ones, which grieve and trouble anyone whose conscience has a pulse.
Image: Screen Shot; NBC Sports; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5-fQ2Qda5U